How My Second Grade Teacher Ruined My Family

My second grade teacher, Mr. Johnson didn’t know he was being an asshole when he told me I didn’t have “real” parents. It was quite nonchalant really, and I don’t know how we, as second graders, minus Mr. Johnson, even got on the topic. “Turn your books to page 153, and, oh yes, Julie doesn’t have real parents.”

In all actuality maybe he was talking about families; maybe he was approaching a lesson about non-traditional families; maybe he wanted me to feel like shit… Who knows?

“Who’s adopted?” Mr. Johnson addressed the class. There were two of us who raised our hands. But this story isn’t about Bobby Eno, this story is about ME, because I’m not white, and Bobby Eno had won the racial lottery [sarcastically kidding, but really…]. I mean, who could tell Bobby Eno was adopted? His parents were white, he was white. All white people look the same, so.

“When you’re adopted, you don’t have REAL parents.” Mr. Johnson rested one butt cheek on one of the student’s desks as he talked openly about familial structures. “JULIE DOESN’T HAVE REAL PARENTS.”

I slumped down in my chair and tried to not make eye contact with anyone as I felt 30 pairs of perfectly round eyes direct their attention my way.

I was a new student. I looked forward to moving, just outside of Flint, because up until then, I was living just outside of Detroit, and I had no real perspective on other cities, or other cultures, or Michael Moore’s cityopic Roger and Me.

Our last school district was tolerable. My sister and I were the only minorities at the time, which of course we experienced the expected amount of eyes-stretched gestures, “ching-chong” chants, and our favorite, being called Chinese.

As the concerned parents of two adopted Asian daughters, prior to our moving, my dad called the school district to see how our race, Asian, would be perceived. The woman he was talking to supposedly laughed and said there were lots of adopted Asians in Flushing Community schools. (Upon moving we discovered “lots” meant five or six, out of a thousand, but that was a subjective question.)

This was a fresh start, and I looked forward to meeting other Asians, I didn’t, not for awhile at least. I don’t know how many weeks had passed since I had started, but I was doing what any normal socially awkward, ethnic minority, new kid, would do. I just tried to blend in with everyone else.

Well it’s pretty hard to blend in when your new teacher, Mr. Johnson, takes time away from teaching us language comprehension, to talk about whether or not Bobby and I have real parents.

My mind must have shut down directly after that, because I have no memory of what happened for the rest of that school day. I do know though, as my mind shut down, today’s topic seemed to ignite new neural titillation in the rest of the class. Suddenly every child seemed to want to engage in today’s lesson. “Could your parents not have their own kids?” “Why would they want to adopt Chinese kids?” “Where are your real parents?”

As my mom tells it, I approached her crying and telling her, “She isn’t my real mom, blah, blah, blah.”

Being the Montesorri school teaching, highly communicative, devout mother that she is, she immediately contacted Mr. Johnson explaining the difference between biological parents and adoptive parents and how they are both parents. She even gave him a worksheet with appropriate versus offensive language when broaching the subject. It didn’t go so well as he started getting defensive and almost argumentative with her.

This was pre-Angelina Jolie’s caravan of adopted kids, so carrying a child from an “exotic” country wasn’t considered the latest accessory at that time. My parents adopted my sister and I (my Dad wanted a new Camaro, but my mom won and here I am) because they wanted to be parents, REAL parents. And they are amazing parents.

Is Mr. Johnson fired yet?

Does SHE speak English?

What do you call a person speaking three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call one speaking two? Bilingual.
What do you call a person speaking one language? American.

I am often times surprised by people being surprised at my ability to speak English. Yes, my eyes look different than yours, but their slight slant in no way prohibits my language comprehension.  I have been living in this country for, on December 11, 26 years. I have been speaking American English since my overzealous (I mean this in the most loving way) Montessori-school-teaching mother could make my vocal chords produce noise.

I am no historian, but people have been speaking English in this country since approximately the 17th century. While we (Americans) have no official national language, it’s pretty safe to say that, in a country where you can run for governor on the platform of being disgusted by the amount of languages (12) your state (Hi Alabama!) provides on driver’s license exams, you better learn FUCKING English. (Hello Tim James!) (I am in no way condoning this mentality; I’m just living in it. [sobs!] )

It would be nice if Americans were as multicultural as the ‘salad bowl’ we dreamed up. And yes, that can be the case on either coast, but as one adopted Korean girl in WEST MICHIGAN, my pot has been melted (nothing I am proud of, but that is life).

Much to my dismay, about a year or two ago, I met one of the biggest proponents of Michigan’s multiculturalism. I word it this way because I have no better explanation for what came out of her mouth.

I was in retail, and chatting working diligently with my friend/co-worker. A woman rushed into our store, looked at the both of us, and then looked at Sarah to ask, “Does SHE speak English?” The both of us froze in disbelief. Before either of us could respond with “Yes” or “No” she proclaimed, with her own sense of affirmation to her question, “You know, because I’m in a hurry. I don’t need a communication barrier.”

Now, at this point thoughts raced through my mind like, ‘This is West Michigan, not New York, there is little to no cultural diversity. NO major corporation would hire a non-English speaker in a customer service job where profits are solely based on precise execution of communication.’ AND BETTER YET, ‘If you were in such a hurry, why did you take the time to ask Sarah if I spoke English? Could you have just, you know, asked Sarah to help you? She, and I think she would agree with me, is as “American-looking” as they come.  (I realize that kind of description can conjure up many negative images…. I mean, she is healthy, beautiful, will probably own a Golden Retriever someday, and most importantly, CAUCASIAN! ) And anyways, all Caucasians in America speak ENGLISH (sarcasm).

I didn’t know what else to do so I just said “Yes.” I helped her, and she thanked me (all in English) and she scurried off to whatever the fuck was so important that she had to make sure there was no communication barrier, but not important enough so that she could first take the time to clarify whether or not we, I mean, I, could speak English.

Later that day I internally harvested a million better scenarios and responses for that question, one being Sarah responding in perfect Mandarin. Of course, to the best of my knowledge, Sarah has never spoken Mandarin, but in my witty daydream SHE DOES. She does SO well that the lady apologizes for her narrow-mindedness on race and language. THEN, a 180 happens and she talks about multiculturalism for at least a half an hour. She explains to us why it is really important for other cultures to maintain their own individual culture while, at the same time, transforming American society into a truly multicultural mosaic. That is why she didn’t want to assume that I spoke English, because she didn’t want to assume that I had ever completely assimilated. I would cry, and confess to her that I had wished I would have paid more attention during Korean Culture Camp. And then SHE forgave ME, and would end up late regardless….

Are YOU Made in China?

Things have been made in China for a long time. Years, and years, and years. We get it. China’s supply chain is growing more and more “sophisticated.” The United States’ manufacturing industry cannot compete with their vast and cheap labor force. Who cares about their questionable human rights violations, or child labor abuses? American consumers can buy a TON of cheap shit (Hello Forever 21, Target, Wal-Mart, etc!).

Americans LOVE pretending to care whether or not products are made in China. But, do their hearts ever tremble for the billions of Chinese workers that are forced to live in dormitories and work long hours with no breaks? No, fuck ‘em. THEY TOOK ALL OF OUR JOBS. And if there is one thing Americans LOVE pretending to care about, it’s ‘them damn foreigners takin’ up all our jobs!’ (Hello Mexico!)

I could spend all day writing, talking, and complaining about American consumerism (but I’d probably get fired). Which brings me to the Fall of 2011. I was working in retail and being the best foster-er of capitalism I could possibly be. I complimented the purse, the hair, the goddamn kids…

Unbeknownst to me, my co-worker was having a lengthy conversation with an older than middle-aged man about our confounded products made in China. This man was not making any kind of political or social argument, just complaining. It was jobs related I suppose, but, and I’m only assuming, his demographic lacks the depth to understand, “If people are complaining about whether or not products are made in the USA they should be out Occupying Wall Street.” (My other co-worker said this after he heard this story. Again, it was the Fall of 2011, when this quote would have been relevant.)

I was behind the register. My co-worker left the aforementioned conversation to go do anything else. I was alone  abandoned. The man made his way to the register and stared at me with a half-smile. I smiled back, because I didn’t know he was a racist, yet.

He looked at me, and then at my watch, and laughed while saying, “That’s an awfully big watch, for a girl!” I hate when people say “for a girl.” (Flashback to various events of my life when that pathetic statement has been uttered: ‘You hit pretty hard, for a girl.’ ‘You know a lot about comics, for a girl.’ ‘You parallel park well, for an Asian, GIRL.’) I already did not appreciate his adherence to societal constructions on gender specific fashion. I was already annoyed, but I kept smiling, because in customer service you have no opinions, or those kinds at least, and you always smile, be it through clenched teeth or not.

So he didn’t have progressive beliefs when it came to gender. Nothing could have prepared me for, “Are you made in China?” I played dumb. Half because I had no idea he had been complaining about Chinese products to my co-worker, and half because that is one of the dumbest things you could say to a stranger. I played dumb and said, “What my watch?”

“No, YOU.”

“What my watch?” I repeated. “I don’t know if it’s made in China, but I can check.”

He spoke slower and looked into the depths of my shrinking soul as he most definitely enunciated, “NO. ARE YOU MADE IN CHINA?” There was no denying it; he IS racist. I froze. I nervously laughed and said, “No, Korea,” and walked into the back room to collect my thoughts.

I have been made to endure, on countless occasions, the rallying of a room full of people to Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 national anthem “Born in the USA.” As isolating as never being able to accurately partake in this luxury is, it is MOUNTAINS better than being one-on-one with an older man pestering me repeatedly with, “Are you made in China?”

Is it correct to say that to a fellow human? How could he not know he sounded like a complete and utter dumb ass? Of course, given his age and lack of human decency, he probably used the term ‘Orientals,’ when referring to Asians, or worse, Celestials…

It is okay to call a particular style of rug Oriental. It is okay to ask whether or not a particular garment is made in China. It is not okay to apply either of those statements to a person. I imagined putting on my grownup pants, conjuring up a chalkboard, and giving this man my best lecture on race and personal boundaries: Words you can string along that will make you sound like a dumb ass, words that won’t. We would discuss the world economy and why major corporations have moved manufacturing oversees. We would laugh at the end, and he would shake my hand enthusiastically bow with gracious sincerity, thanking me, while apologizing for his unrefined intellect. I would give the most heartfelt eulogy at his funeral, recalling how we met, and how we overcame his racism, together.

None of this would ever happen, because as I stepped out of the backroom, and back into his sight, he let out, “Soooo… You drive a Kia?!” I chose to smile back at him, through clenched teeth.